WASHINGTON -- Yasser Arafat, welcomed to the White House as a peacemaker, used his new prestige to press an old complaint: His people are receiving only a small fraction of the international aid they were promised.
At a meeting with President Clinton and in later public remarks, Mr. Arafat said Palestinians were being forced to endure "collective punishment" as Israel restricts the movement of goods and people in the West Bank and Gaza.
The Israeli restrictions followed a series of recent suicide bombings by Arab militants that have terrorized the Israeli populace and heightened fears that the peace process will only weaken Israeli security.
Mr. Arafat also complained that of hundreds of millions of dollars promised by international donors meeting in Paris in January, the Palestinians have received only $27 million. And he hinted strongly that if these conditions persisted, Israel would never know peace.
"Can you live peacefully and easily while your neighbor is facing starvation, is facing [a] dramatic situation? Definitely not," he said at the National Press Club. "And this will reflect negatively on the whole peace process. I am sorry to say that till now we are paying the price of the peace."
The restrictions have thrown 120,000 Palestinians out of work, he said, and are costing $6 million each day.
Cutting a modest, soft-spoken figure in Washington, wearing his signature black-and-white head scarf and closely flanked by bodyguards, Mr. Arafat was warmly received by Mr. Clinton at the White House on his first visit as a national leader in his own right.
"I am delighted to have this opportunity," Mr. Clinton told him.
Mr. Arafat, elected president of the Palestinian authority in January, previously had been at the White House only to participate in signing ceremonies for peace agreements with Israel.
Yesterday he sat, like any visiting head of government, in a wing chair in front of the Oval Office fireplace, responding to questions during a photo opportunity.
This was Mr. Arafat's first one-on-one meeting with the president at the White House in his own right as a national leader, and it marked an important symbolic step in the Palestinians' quest for world recognition, if not actual statehood.
Emerging from the Oval Office and a subsequent meeting at the State Department with Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Mr. Arafat announced that the relationship will be formalized further with the formation of a Palestinian-American commission to "deal with all issues of mutual concern for us and for the United States."
A State Department spokesman was far more vague: "They agreed on the desirability of a more regularized structure of cooperation," the spokesman said.
But James Zogby, an Arafat supporter and president of the Arab-American Institute, said: "This establishes a framework for ongoing institutional discourse" between the United States and the infant Palestinian government.
Mr. Arafat was less successful in another quest: increasing U.S. pressure on Israel to ease restrictions on the West Bank and Gaza.
Mr. Clinton and Mr. Christopher responded by urging Mr. Arafat to do even more in cracking down on terrorists operating from Palestinian areas, officials said.
"We're talking to them about further efforts that can be made in order to bring greater security and confront terror in the territories," said White House spokesman David Johnson. "There have been significant steps that have been made there, but there's some more work that can be done."
The United States and Israel are pushing the Palestinians to arrest Mohammad Deif, leader of the armed faction of Hamas, the radical Islamic group that seeks to undo the peace process.
Palestinian security forces already have arrested the group's second-ranking leader, Adnan Ghoul.
As for money, U.S. officials agreed that Palestinians had a right to complain, and said they would push other donor countries to fulfill their pledges. But they said the Clinton administration was fulfilling its $100 million-a-year commitment. In fact, the Republican chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman of New York, has held up a $13 million installment of the aid. Mr. Gilman is skeptical of the Palestinians' commitment to fighting terrorism and suspects that they are hoarding undisclosed assets.
Mr. Arafat met yesterday with the World Bank's president, James Wolfensohn, but that was just to sign a previously agreed upon $20 million loan, officials said.
The Palestinian leader's final public appearance in Washington was to conduct a "town meeting" for Palestinians living in the United States.
Hisham Sharabi, chairman of the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine and a longtime Arafat critic, said this week that members of the Palestinian diaspora are increasingly worried that they will be the losers in final-status negotiations with Israel, which are to start Sunday. They fear that in the final agreement they will be denied the right to return to their homeland, he said.
Pub Date: 5/02/96